Between the Lines: Sue Grafton mulls ‘Y’; heads to Sacramento

Sue Grafton says her protagonist, Kinsey Milhone, will call the shots when Grafton mulls giving her “true love.”
Sue Grafton says her protagonist, Kinsey Milhone, will call the shots when Grafton mulls giving her “true love.”

Not surprisingly, best-selling author Sue Grafton had a few provocative things to say in August when I interviewed her in this space before the release of “X,” the latest entry in her uber-popular “Alphabet Mysteries” series starring P.I. Kinsey Millhone (Putnam, $29, 416 pages).

At the time, Grafton was preparing for a 10-day, 10-city book tour. Later, she would say, “It went very well, unless everybody was lying to me.”

At the end of our first conversation, I invited Grafton to appear for the Sacramento Bee Book Club, now in its 19th season. She is scheduled to greet fans on Thursday, March 17, at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria. All the tickets have been claimed.

To refresh: Grafton, 75, and her husband, philosophy professor Steven Humphrey, divide their time between homes in Louisville, Ky., where she was born and raised, and a 2-acre ranch near Santa Barbara, which models for Kinsey’s fictional hometown of Santa Teresa.

Grafton walks 7 miles a day and loves to entertain. Unlike many A-list authors, she is comfortable under the radar. “One thing I work on is staying detached from any recognition or celebrity,” she said. “It’s not interesting to me and doesn’t help me write the books.”

Visit her at and

Q: What have you been doing since we talked?

A: I’ve been gearing up for “Y.” When I have an idea, I lay it out on paper and start fiddlin’ with it to see if I can make it hold up to my brutal judgment. I ask myself quite contentious questions about the story line until I’m sure I have something that will be solid.

Then I do the research. For instance, we went to the Winchester Gun Club and did some shooting as a way of getting back to Kinsey Millhone’s experience. I’ve done some of the writing for “Y” and have some sense of how it lays out, but I’m by no means confident at this point.

Q: In August I asked you what you’ll do when you finish “Z Is For Zero,” and you said, “If I continue to write about Ms. Millhone, I’ll do stand-alones (not a series). That way I’ll always have the option to bow out gracefully.” Anything changed?

A: Essentially not. One of the things I’m waiting to determine is what kind of mental state and what kind of energy I’ll have when I get to the end of “Z.” I do not want to keep writing if the juice is gone. Trust me, after 35 years of this, I’ve poured a lot of juice into the world at large.

Q: Kinsey’s parents were killed in a car wreck when she was 5, and the child was trapped for hours in the car with them before her rescue. As a child, you were trapped with alcoholic parents, and have said, “From the age of 5 onward, I was left to raise myself, which I did as well as I could.”

A: I did not consciously make that parallel. It was some years after I started the series that I looked back and said, “Oh, goodness, Kinsey’s parents died when she was 5,” and in some ways my parents did as well. My parents were very smart and well-educated, and there was nothing slatternly or mean about them. They just weren’t very good parents. Being available to children is a very special skill, and they were so caught up in their own melodrama they couldn’t take care of my sister and me. So we raised ourselves.

Q: You published “Kinsey and Me” in 2013, written in the decade after your mother died. The “Kinsey” part is nine short stories about the P.I.’s cases, but the “And Me” part is autobiographical, written by your alter-ego, named Kit Blue.

A: I thought it was time to become transparent to my readers. Some people look at me as being so lucky. “She has this talent and ability, and isn’t her life grand?” They should be aware that some of this comes out of quite dark material. All of us can experience something dark and still end up doing great good in the world. As goody two-shoes as that sounds, it felt like something worth conveying.

Q: Does Santa Barbara know it’s the model for the fictitious Santa Teresa, where Kinsey lives?

A: I’m sure it does. I get a great turnout here when I do signings. Some (fans) even come to Santa Barbara to see if they can spot Kinsey. They go to the beach and walk up and down, looking for Kinsey jogging. I do that myself, to tell you the truth. Like, “Where is that house of hers?”

Q: When will Santa Barbara host a Sue Grafton Festival or a Kinsey Millhone Day?

A: I’m not sure. In Louisville, where we spend seven months of the year, they put up banners on the sides of buildings, naming people from the city who have done significant work. For instance, they have (KFC founder) Colonel Sanders, (TV journalist) Diane Sawyer and they just put up (actress) Jennifer Lawrence. I’m going up in the middle of April. They probably waited until I was more than halfway through the alphabet.

Q: Kinsey doesn’t have many friends; why don’t you give her a pet?

A: I’ve been thinking she could have a sponge, she would just have to keep it in a fish bowl and keep it wet. At one point I gave her an air fern and she thought it smelled like feet. Her apartment got blown up and the fern went out the window.

Q: She’s famous for being the opposite of a fashionista.

A: Her “uniform” is a turtleneck sweater, jeans and boots. She does not go clothes-shopping with other women, but her all-purpose little black dress takes care of everything – funerals, weddings …

Q: Kinsey has two ex-husbands and a few lovers in her past. Will she find true love by the end of “Z”?

A: I don’t make plans for her because she tells me, I don’t tell her. I just wait to see what she presents and then I try to render it as truthfully as I know how.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Sue Grafton at Bee Book Club

All tickets to Sue Grafton’s Bee Book Club presentation on Thursday, March 17, have been claimed. However, these bookstores offer her latest novel, “X,” for 30 percent off the retail price through Thursday: In Sacramento at Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.